The small size of the Great Basses Reef, located in the Indian Ocean about eight miles off the southeast coast of Sri Lanka, belies its great importance to navigation and ecology. The reef, along with the nearby Little Basses Reef, is located at the confluence of easterly and southerly currents.
The word “basses” is derived from the Portuguese word “baxos,” meaning shoals. The waters around the reefs harbor many species of sea life, including tuna, grouper, and sperm whales. Near the reefs in 1874, it was claimed that a giant squid pulled the ship Pearl to its doom. Vessels have passed here for centuries, skirting the reefs as they round Sri Lanka. The menacing reefs – only a few feet above the water even in calm weather – have caused the ruin of many ships.
The Great Basses Lighthouse was established in March 1873, during the era of British rule when Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon. Contruction took more than two years to complete at the exposed location. The granite tower was designed by engineer James Douglass and built by his brother, William Douglass, of the Imperial Lighthouse Service. Varying heights for the tower appear in different sources; the height given in
the current NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) light list is 125 feet.
The massive stone blocks used in the tower’s construction were quarried and prepared in Scotland and England, then shipped to Galle. A first-order lens was installed, exhibiting a red flash every 45 seconds. Five years later, a similar granite lighthouse – also designed and built by the Douglasses – was built at the Little Basses Reef.
The most publicized episode in the history of the Great Basses Lighthouse occurred in the early 1960s when diver/writer Arthur C. Clarke and diver Mike Wilson found a treasure of silver coins at the reef. In his book Indian Ocean Adventure, Clarke described the interior of the lighthouse as “gloomy,” with five-foot thick walls and windows that were little more than slits. “These windows had been designed for defense,” wrote Clarke, “but against the sea, not against men.”
Resident keepers maintained Great Basses Lighthouse until recently. Mohd Zarook, a keeper from 1969 to 1971, wrote the following account:
“We lived three to four months at a time at the lighthouse wearing only undergarments. We did our own cooking and haircutting, and our favorite hobby was fishing. At times of monsoons and rough seas we managed with dry food, as we were unable to fish. I also enjoyed the radiotelephone communication and Morse/semaphore communications with the neighboring lighthouses. We only could have a pint of water in the morning for each keeper, to have our faces washed, and two pints in the afternoon for a body wash. This was possible with a small handkerchief. Whenever it rained, we had to collect the rainwater that fell on the tower, before which we had to wash all the gutters to get rid of the salt from the sea breeze.”
Writer Udena Attygalle visited the lighthouse in 2000 and described the life of the keepers for Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times. Principal Keeper J. P. Padmasiri explained the daily routine: “We get up around 6 a.m., switch off the lights, get breakfast ready, radio the Dondra Lighthouse at 9 a.m., do the necessary maintenance work, lunch, rest, radio again at 5 p.m. and then switch on the lights again.” By this time, the crew had TV and a VCR for entertainment, but life was still lonely. “We are like birds, well-fed but trapped in a cage,” complained Assistant Keeper Bandula Prathapasinghe.
The devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004, took approximately 40,000 lives in Sri Lanka alone. At Great Basses Reef, the lighthouse sustained the full force of the tsunami. The sturdy tower was unbowed, but there was damage to the lighthouse’s base, lighting apparatus, and fuel tanks. The keepers survived, but they reportedly refused to go back to the station after the disaster. At the Little Basses Lighthouse, the keepers had to be rescued by helicopter.
The authorities of the UK’s Trinity House and Northern Lighthouse Board quickly moved to help. “We recognized that failure to support full restoration of navigational safety in Sri Lankan waters could lead to further disaster given the island’s status as a major transfer hub for East-West container traffic,” wrote Richard L. Robinson, project manager for Trinity House.
In the spring of 2005, a team of personnel from Trinity House and the Northern Lighthouse Board inspected Sri Lanka’s navigational aids. Work was paid for through a combination of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, Trinity House, and donors from
the international shipping community. The full cost of the restoration of lighthouses and other naviga-tional aids was £750,000, or about
After the restoration of important buoys in Sri Lanka’s waters, work progressed to the lighthouses in 2006. Torrential rains and flooding (the worst in 30 years) along the coast near the reef in late 2006 delayed the project, but the work eventually moved forward. The interior of the tower was cleaned and repainted, damaged parts of the gallery and lantern were replaced, the winch and davit arm were refurbished, the exterior of the tower was painted, and a solar power system was installed for the newly automated light.
The reinstated light began service on February 5, 2007. Work at Little Basses Lighthouse followed, and that important aid was functioning again by April 12, 2007. Thanks to a model example of international cooperation, navigation around Sri Lanka is once again safe.
This story appeared in the
October 2007 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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